Op-ed – We all win when media is gender aware

By Rosebell Kagumire & Rebecca Rwakabukoza

It’s not news that Uganda has a female-dominated population. In fact, the latest population census of 2014, puts the population of women in the country at 51%.

It’s also not news that over the years, women in Uganda have worked hard to climb economic, social and political ladders; they are farmers, civil servants, boda boda riders and taxi owners; some are bankers, chief executives of companies, judges or MPs. Some operate mobile money kiosks, while others are house helps, mothers and police officers. A lot of women make decisions in this country, but they are also affected by decisions made.

Despite this diversity in roles and advantage in number, the media often tells a different story. It’s common to read a newspaper story that has 100% male sources. In fact, findings from the ACME research project – Monitoring Media Coverage of the 2016 Elections – show that between September 2015 and May 2016, less than 20% of women were quoted as sources by the media in election stories.

If you tune in randomly to any radio or TV political talk show, chances are high that you’ll meet an all-male panel. The inclusion of one woman in a five-member panel is often regarded as a sufficient achievement. In national newspapers, issues concerning women are relegated to women magazines that are published once a week and even then, the issues are restricted to childcare, relationships and fashion. A journalist will ask a male MP for his views on a new legislation, while his female counterpart will be asked how she balances marriage and politics, or why her marriage collapsed.

According to the Global Media Monitoring Report, 2015,  only 28% of Ugandan women were news subjects that year, and even then, their views were least sought on topics considered “serious” such as politics, governance and economy. In cases where women were quoted as sources, they featured as victims or survivors, while those directly quoted were just 15%. It’s therefore possible that even when a story is about women, it’s not a must that their views will be sought.

Besides the few voices of women in the media, their portrayal is also often negative, stereotypical and sexualized. A newspaper that runs a story with a photo captioned, “yummy babes drugged at boat cruise, bonked senseless”, will elicit excitement rather than anger or condemnation, while a national newspaper will publish an article in which a counsellor tells a woman whose husband impregnated a 15-year-old to “make efforts to work on the issues that could have led your husband to cheat on you, work on your self-esteem, as well as his”.

While media portrayal of women is largely skewed, we also recognize that the media plays a crucial role in shaping opinion and influencing social change. This explains why it is important that the media make a deliberate effort to be gender aware and to screen every story for gender-insensitive reporting.

While we continue pushing the media on gender-sensitive reporting, creating alternative platforms for conversations on gendered reporting is crucial. Through these platforms, women, including those working in the media, can converge and converse about various issues.

It’s for this reason that Mon pi Mon and She Matters Uganda in November 2016, hosted a gathering of women working in the media to discuss some of these issues. The gathering, hosted in collaboration with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, was the first in a series of quarterly discussions that aim at advancing a gender-aware media in Uganda.

The gatherings will not just point out the various ways in which the media is falling short on gender-sensitive reporting, but also to foster understanding of challenges and misconceptions that exist when it comes to women portrayal in the media.

Recognising that the current media terrain is skewed and that attaining gender parity is a duty; and realizing that many questions exist and answers need to be sought, we are ready to take on this task. For instance, how do we address the fact that our newsrooms have more men than women in management positions – a situation that contributes to news being presented through an all-male lens?

How do we ensure that the few female journalists we have are gender-sensitive and are champions of the same? How do we encourage media houses to retain and motivate more women to stay in the newsroom?

Is it enough to say women are shy and not willing to speak about “serious” issues such as politics and governance, like one journalist reasoned during the November gathering? Why should it be okay for a journalist to chase after a male source for months, and give up when a female source says no the first time?

Shouldn’t journalists acknowledge that the media has brought down many women so many times and therefore their hesitation to be quoted is justified and thus the need for reassurance and not a shun?

We acknowledge that achieving equitable media coverage is not going to be easy but because the media is in a unique position to influence and shape society, we know it is crucial that news managers makes conscious editorial decisions on every stories aired or published.

Many women and young people are taking advantage of new media tools such as blogs, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and web-based forums to express themselves and tell their stories in ways that were not possible before.

Despite inequalities that still exist in accessing these platforms, many women are making their voices heard and taking part in national dialogues. We hope our media will continue to tap into these voices to bring more balanced and gendered coverage, including those about online violence against women.

It’s high time we stopped labelling issues that affect women as “women issues” or issues that should be addressed by women’s groups or organisations. Everything that affects a woman, affects society, directly or indirectly and the media plays a crucial role in making this known.

Rosebell is a writer and women’s rights advocate, and Rebecca is a freelance writer and the brain behind Mon Pi Mon, an online space where she questions, appreciates, dissects and shares issues that affect women in Uganda. The two run SheMatters Uganda, an initiative committed to a more equitable representation of women in the media.

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Have you seen a story or tweet that reinforces gender stereotypes or one that challenges it? Share and tag @Amthe51Percent

If you are in the media and would like to take part in the next dialogue or share an idea, send an email to shemattersuganda [at] gmail [dot] com

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Editor’s Note: Do you have strong and informed opinion on current affairs in Uganda and beyond? Send a 800-word opinion to info [at] acme-ug [dot] org and let your views be read.